A few sentences into our interview, Tzahi Hanegbi pulls my tape-recorder across his almost bare desk so that the microphone is directly below him. 'The tape won't pick me up otherwise,' he says. 'I speak so quietly.'
Indeed he does. But he more than compensates in impact for what he lacks in volume. Coming from a Likud minister who has consistently voted against disengagement, from the man moreover who led a group of students to try and resist the evacuation of Yamit 23 years ago, what he says so quietly for much of the next hour is both occasionally counter-intuitive and unusually resonant.
It includes a robust defense of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against the allegation from the anti-disengagement camp that he is championing a policy at profound odds to the one he peddled when campaigning for the Likud party leadership. But along with that defense, Hanegbi delivers a horrified indictment of the Likud for departing from its traditional opposition to Palestinian statehood in selecting a leader who made no secret of being reconciled to the establishment of Palestine.
Of more immediate relevance as the anti-disengagement campaign gears up for another mass protest against the pullout today, Hanegbi espouses profound empathy for the aims of the struggle, and equally profound dismay for the way in which it is being conducted. He accuses the leadership of failures that, if not rectified, will undermine future attempts to thwart further, imposed withdrawals in the West Bank. Worse still, he charges that by taking steps that indicate they are reconciled to intra-Jewish violence, by failing to marginalize extreme activists, and by failing to recognize the illegitimacy of the call on soldiers to refuse orders, they risk destabilizing the consensual foundations of the state.
What happened to the government commitment to four stages of approval for settlement dismantling - four stages of voting?
The decision stands. It deals with the evacuation of four sets of settlements - each of which requires specific government approval.
A rubber stamp?
The majority won't change. It has no political significance. I have voted and will continue to vote against disengagement - a protest vote without value. At most, four ministers will vote against - Bibi, me, Yisrael Katz and perhaps Danny Naveh. From the moment that this became a unity government, and the right wing parties departed or were fired, it became clear what the results of all such votes would be.
You oppose disengagement and think it is bad, but not so bad as to have prompted you to bolt the government?
I've never said it was absolutely bad. The prime minister's move has a certain basic logic that in certain areas serves Israel's interests - especially in the field of ties with the United States and the rest of the world.
Beyond that, I don't see additional positive aspects that advance Israel's security - neither long term and strategic, nor in the tactical field regarding the threat of terrorism in Judea and Samaria or Gaza. There may be fewer casualties because of reduced friction in those areas [from which Israel is withdrawing], but there may be a growth of friction elsewhere - rocket attacks on the western Negev, Sderot and, if the range is improved, casualties in the Ashkelon area. So neither a positive nor a negative conclusion regarding terror.
I also don't foresee a positive change in our relations with the Palestinians - and there are those who say we are showing the Palestinians that they can get by force what they couldn't get at the negotiating table - withdrawal and evacuation. I certainly don't see an improvement in our deterrent power, something that will make them more flexible.
I don't think the plan is good enough for me to vote for. So I've voted against time after time. I also don't see it as the disaster its opponents describe it as. I don't see it as the end of Zionism, the end of settlement, the collapse of the State and those other apocalyptic assessments. They're not credible to me.
What about the perceived demographic benefits of withdrawal?
Since 1993 Israel has not controlled the lives of the Gazans - in contrast to Judea and Samaria where every now and again we go into Palestinian cities because of our security obligations. In Gaza, we haven't gone in except very rarely. So I don't know what relevance the demographic argument has here. I don't even think that the most vehement opponents on the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip believe Israel should invade Rafiah or Jabalya and impose Israeli law and take control and give the residents there voting rights. They don't want to control Gaza. They want to keep the Jewish settlements in Gaza...
And I consider that this plan is making the lives of 8,500 people miserable without a justified reason. I can understand why the Yamit settlements were evacuated as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, even though I opposed the pullout. At least it didn't seem to me that it was bizarre that it was part of the agreement. Here, there's no agreement. There's no benefit. There's no progress diplomatically, economically, politically, and there is a terrible, cruel price.
Yet you, Tzahi Hanegbi, a leader of opposition at Yamit, are swallowing this?
At Yamit I also swallowed it. I was a member of the Likud. I didn't go crazy. Even my mother, who left the Likud, went back after some years. Life has its complexities beyond the legitimate cries of alarm.
The political history of the Likud and other parties teaches that leaving a party against the background of a policy you oppose puts an end to your capacity to influence the system. There may be some people who are not prepared to live with that lie and make radical decisions. I'm thinking of Benny Begin, who took a personal decision to bolt the party his father had led for decades. He couldn't live with his conscience - and it wasn't even giving up settlements, but rather on policy which he regarded as too dovish on the Oslo process. It wasn't something drastic like the Camp David accords [with Egypt]. It didn't disturb him that his father relinquished the Sinai settlements. It disturbed him that the Wye Agreements were adopted. People who bolt are invariably pushed to the sidelines. He ultimately left political life. The great flux of political life pushed him out and there are many other examples left and right of people who bolted from key positions because they believed that it was the right thing to do, and they thought they would be able to influence the political processes, but it didn't turn out that way... A wise man learns from the experiences of others... and there was no way to stop this process.
Not even when, at some stages, a majority of Likud Knesset members could have been mustered against the legislation?
The numbers weren't there. Clearly Netanyahu was a key player. Clearly, the anti-disengagement campaign has never had a popular leader with political weight and a political future. I, for instance, couldn't have fulfilled that role. Netanyahu didn't want to take that role.
Uzi Landau and Benny Alon tried [to lead the campaign] but they didn't have the strength. And in the Knesset there's a built-in majority - 52 members of the Left, so only nine more votes were needed. Sharon always knew he had those nine and more.
As one of the leaders of the opposition in 1982, what would you advise the pullout's opponents to do today?
By 1982, it had been four years since the agreement with Egypt. The Egyptian Embassy had been opened in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. All of Sinai had been returned to the Egyptians two years earlier. The agreement had been implemented to the letter. All that was left was the obligation to evacuate the Yamit settlements. So, the opposition struggle was not to cancel the agreement, to re-conquer Sinai. It said, rather, that there was no logic in dismantling settlements close to the Israeli border in an area where there were no other residents and where they posed no threat, theoretically at least, to Israeli-Egyptian peace. Of course, there would have been implications to the treaty if we'd stayed there, but that was the thesis.
Our voice wasn't heard. It was a minority voice. Most of the residents were practical moshavnikim, who had moved there for a new experience, agriculture, not on an ideological and religious basis. And they left; the opponents who moved into their abandoned homes came overwhelmingly from Orthodox Zionist circles. Then there 17 students, led by me, who wanted to create the sense that secular students also had something to say against the evacuation.
We were all ex-army. Some of us had been officers in Lebanon. We didn't want to be in conflict with the army. We wanted to focus around the Yamit monument, which would then have to be secured by the army, ensuring a continued presence.
You see the difference: It wasn't residents there [at Yamit], but opponents who'd come from the outside. Today, maybe a third or a half of the residents are taking compensation and evacuating. [The rest] are fighting for their homes. The struggle will be far greater. The reservoir of supportive activists is greater... And there's a sense of siege among the settlers that is much greater than in 1982.
The bottom line at Yamit was that no soldier could be harmed. Maybe insulted. Maybe one would slip. But none would be hurt.
The leadership of that day - Hanan Porat, my mother [Geula Cohen], Rabbi Levinger among them - was a very patriotic leadership. It loved the state of Israel. It was very Zionist. It didn't even contemplate activity that might endanger life and limb.
Today it is entirely different. In the discussions being held today by the leaders of the struggle, they know that confrontation between thousands is anticipated and that it won't end in tears and hugs, because there are enough people on both sides who can't be controlled - provocateurs, idiots and people who don't know where to stop. I don't know how great the danger is. But the danger is there and they are not cancelling their plans to struggle despite the fact that it is strewn with dangers.
Now I identify with the struggle, with the protest. It would shameful for Israel were this harsh process to pass without protest. Even if I don't regard the process as apocalyptic, I do understand the apocalyptic significance for the people directly affected by the expulsion. Sterile expressions like disengagement are used, but this is expulsion. I cannot deny the pain, nor can I deny the imperative to make every effort to try to avoid the expulsion.
I only ask, as someone close to their hearts, that they not become addicted to the tactical aspects of the struggle, but rather that they should see the greater picture - in terms of the wellbeing of the nation in, say, November 2005.
We must not make concessions to the [anti-disengagement] strugglers because their struggle is taking place against a justified and painful background. You can't give legitimacy to refusal. You can't give legitimacy to violence. You can't give legitimacy to a loss of control in the struggle to extremist groups that might escalate it. That is the responsibility of leadership.
You can't, in the hope of thwarting disengagement, be prepared to create social chaos, to make refusal a widespread phenomenon, to force the army to surrender, to enable them to allow thousands to infiltrate into the Gaza Strip to create a critical mass.
Those things are not legitimate and I know some of the [leaders] are vacillating. If I were with them, I'd also be vacillating. But I'm not with them and so I can be more rational and less emotional and these are the decisions they have to take: One, outlawing refusal completely. Two, outlawing violence completely - not merely declaratively, but by refraining from taking decisions on operational processes that will include violence in the end. Three, not abandoning the field, as they have to a certain extent, to certain groups. Now the leadership says, 'It's not us, we're not pouring oil or throwing nails and carrying out the pulsa denura.' True, it's all not them. But because they're intent on maintaining consensus in the struggle, you don't hear a clear, brusque condemnation from the heart.
That is their obligation to the state - and to the idea that underpins this struggle: They will have to struggle with me and with Sharon against other forces for the sake of Alfei Menashe and Ariel and Bet-El and the Jewish quarter in Hebron and the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem. And they are making it harder for us to fight the coming struggles.
Take refusal, for example. Refusal has been out there in the Israeli consciousness since the Lebanon War. The Left was smart enough not to identify with the group that advocated refusal. They understood that if they raised that political flag, they'd be amputated eventually from the mainstream.
What's happening now is that in part of the Rightist camp, they are making the mistake that the Left didn't. Out of despair, frustration or hope that refusal will be an effective tool in thwarting disengagement - they're prepared to live with it. Not all of them. But you don't see real, honest reservation.
Why is this grave? Because the battle over the borders of Israel is only at its beginning. We'll get into some kind of political process - either with Abu Mazen, or after Abu Mazen. It will happen. When it does we, as the national camp, will want to impose our positions on what we hope will be a minority by democratic methods. We'll want to establish Ariel, the big settlement blocs, Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, as areas which will come [or stay] under Israeli sovereignty. A considerable proportion of the public opposes this, because it understands that it is hard to reconcile such positions with its view of a viable deal [with the Palestinians].
At the moment, there is no Palestinian leader who can live with those positions, which are held by most of the Likud - maybe Sharon too, I hope so; certainly the Yesha Council. So if our approach wins electoral backing in future elections, then the likelihood of reaching an agreement in the foreseeable future on the basis of those positions is zero. And then, plainly, that those who want peace at any price - Peace Now, the Labor Party, most of the parties that aren't in the Right camp - will hold marches and demand that we change our policy. And those demands could be backed by a call for refusal.
And the Right who today are fighting disengagement are giving legitimacy to that use. The slogan 'A Jew doesn't expel a Jew' means that the soldier-Jew decides not to carry out an order to expel another Jew. Well, that gives another soldier the legitimacy to decide that he is not going to protect a Jew who lives in Ariel or Hebron or east Jerusalem. It's a recipe for a rift that will destroy the capacity to live here as a consensual state.
Maybe this sounds a bit apocalyptic, but you cannot gloss over that danger because you are so consumed by the struggle against disengagement.
Exactly the same applies to violence. A march that passes through soldiers and policemen who have been ordered to prevent infiltrations, to prevent the crossing of civilians - you can't say that 'we're going ahead, but we're not going to have violence.' It's an oxymoron. It's impossible. You bring people, you whip them up, you set the goal, and on the way to the goal the law enforcement forces are deployed. There'll be confrontation. And I don't think it's worth the lives of those who are trying to get in and those who are ordered to stop them.
Now, I understand the frustrations. They organized a human chain, the whole country's been turned orange, they won over the Likud members and yet they're being scoffed at. 'Arik Sharon doesn't heed us.'
So what do you advise them to do?
At Yamit I was in exactly that same emotional place. I saw myself with my small force of students trying to stop the evacuation. But on the Thursday night, April 23, we had to take a decision about what to do because that was the deadline we had received from Haim Erez who was in charge of the evacuation. He was as determined as [today's police chiefs] Moshe Karadi and [Uri] Bar-Lev and [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz are determined.
We'd gone onto the [28-meter-high] memorial. There was no way up from below. We'd cut the metal spiral staircase out from under us as we went up. We'd come for a cause, not to come down and fail. We'd been there for three weeks. We'd been part of a vibrant strip of settlements and every night one of them had disappeared.
But we knew what decision we had to make. We thought, 'Could we look into the eyes of a mother whose soldier son was hurt trying to evacuate us, or the mother of one of the people with us if he had fallen?' We simply ruled it out. So, before 6 o'clock that next morning, we told them that we wouldn't struggle. We chained ourselves to delay the moment, but we knew we would be evacuated.
Not a single soldier was harmed. We didn't shout abuse. We just stood there, sang Hatikva, chained ourselves and were taken down [via a ladder]. And that's what I think should be our expectation of these campaigners. They should fight to the end with democratic tools, hold rallies and gatherings and whip up spirits. But they must also not depart from the iron principles that must characterize a struggle like this.
You had entered a closed zone. So shouldn't bursting into Gaza be okay for them, too?
No, the very call [now] to burst into Gaza includes the aspects of confrontation that will lead to violence and people being injured.
If they say the majority is with them, then find a way to express that. For example, swarm to the houses of the Knesset members. There are 120 MKs. Bring 10,000 people to each of their homes, so that every Knesset member who goes out over the next three weeks will see thousands. Do what they did in Ukraine: Bring half a million people into a public square for weeks. That ultimately might have sufficient effect to bring about a delay.
If they're not a majority, but a minority, then there's certainly no legitimacy to stop decisions taken by sovereign institutions by force.
These people do believe that they're the majority. They believe that most of the public opposes disengagement. They interpret the readiness of people to fly an orange ribbon as an expression of that majority. Maybe. This hasn't been examined in a referendum or in elections. But to turn it into a tool with a political effect, you can't use force or use refusal, because the price of that is greater than the cost of the pullout. You need to create a political effect with a moral weight that doesn't undermine future ideological struggles.
None of that is going to work though now, is it?
No, it may be too late. But that's what they should have done if there was a majority.
Actually, I don't believe there is a majority. Most of the public is indifferent - doesn't see a reason to delight in disengagement, but doesn't want to stay in Gaza forever. If Sharon has decided, okay, it respects Sharon's decision. That, in my opinion, is the position of the average, non-ideological public. Not the Left, and not the Right. The Left isn't happy with this process. Most of its demands are not met. It suspects that Sharon is doing this to gain a time-out from the political process that the Left wants. And we know the criticisms from the Right. But most of the public is not left or right. The public is pragmatic - looks for what is really good for the country. So I believe that, as the surveys show, most of the public is reconciled to the pullout and sees it as a reasonable step which doesn't drive it crazy. If it had to decide at home without having to schlep out and vote - if on the Internet it could vote on this - there would be a reasonable majority in favor of the pullout.
The only reasonable chance politically to stop disengagement is marginal and is entirely dependent on the Palestinians. If there is an escalation of terrorism directed, at the time of disengagement, on those who are being evacuated, the settlements, Sderot, the western Negev, on an intolerable scale, with casualties, maybe, under the headline 'we're not pulling out under fire,' there would be a freeze temporarily on the pullout. That's the only scenario I can envisage.
Have you conveyed your concerns about the nature of the struggle to the leadership?
I don't really have a dialogue with them. We say hello when we pass in the Knesset.
How bad do you think it will be?
Look, I believed that Kfar Maimon would be much worse and I was pleasantly surprised. I feared that the official leadership - Benzi Lieberman, Pinhas Wallerstein - would lose control over the masses to the hilltop youth and other less disciplined forces. Ahead of time, I would have predicted violence and lots of people hurt on both sides. Fortunately, I wasn't asked to make such a prediction, so now I don't have to eat my hat.
I will say that I'm sure it will be more painful and more traumatic than Yamit. There won't be the pastoral return that, relatively speaking, characterized the Yamit pullout.
And what will happen afterwards politically? The political framework is lagging behind the changed policies of key leaders.
The Likud is heading for a period of internal conflict, like those of the past. Instability, to the point of possible splits. But the ideological issue will lose weight after disengagement. There'll be no more rebels, because there'll be nothing to rebel against. Sharon will head right - authentically, not as a ruse - ahead of the primaries, in line with his ideology that he has a commitment to protect the major settlement blocs. He doesn't even dream of initiating a second, similar pullback. He won't evacuate a single additional settlement, other than within the framework of an agreement, for which he has said he is prepared to pay a painful price. So he would have to express those positions within the Likud consensus.
There'll be a political battle. Netanyahu has a network that is pressing him to run for the party leadership. Uzi Landau will run. He represents an important group and they'll present Sharon as 'tricking us again, selling us empty promises, and if we don't stop him now we'll find ourselves separating from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria very quickly.'
The Likud will survive these rifts over the leadership if the loser accepts the choice of the victor and continues to function within the party. I can predict that there won't be a mass walkout from the Likud and that the Likud will continue to function in its classic fashion.
Who do you think will prevail?
Either Sharon or Netanyahu. I don't see Uzi Landau beating Sharon. And assuming the Likud moves to the right, it doesn't really matter who will be at the head of the party. Every prime minister departs to a certain degree from his original declarations. and the voters know this, too. When they vote, they take into account that they won't get the precise implementation [of promised policies]. They hope that the departures will be minor and they'll be able to live with that.
I'm not sure Sharon's voters all believe his departures have been minimal.
That's not fair. You can't accuse Sharon of shedding his skin. Specifically, on the issue of Netzarim, yes, he said its fate should be the same as Tel Aviv's. I didn't understand why he said that at the time and he didn't explain. But he campaigned against Netanyahu [for the Likud leadership] saying that if he was chosen he would lead a process at the end of which there'd be a Palestinian state - this in complete contrast to what would most easily have secured him victory. Netanyahu said that anyone who voted for Sharon was voting for a Palestinian state, so naturally most Likud voters should have been expected to vote against a Palestinian state. That's the position of most of the Knesset members, most of the ministers, most of the voters. Most of them believe that we should prevent a Palestinian state.
Despite this, most voted for Arik Sharon - a significant majority. He received a mandate for a political line that has not been the classic line of the Likud party since 1967. Now, he didn't implement that line because he didn't have a partner for a Palestinian state. So he went for a unilateral plan. Clearly he departed from his tactical policy. Tactically, he refused at the time to so much as discuss with Mitzna the evacuation of even a single settlement. But his world view was the establishment of the Palestinian state and it horrifies me to even think that the Likud voted for this, but it did and I live with it on the assumption that we won't have a partner for a Palestinian state and so we'll be able to hold on...
Well, what do you view as the long-term borders of Israel?
Again, we have an interest in not controlling the Arabs of Judea and Samaria. That's why we left the Palestinian cities. I oppose control of the Palestinian cities except where security requires it. But I want Israel to include those areas that are massively settled by Jews - the big cities, but not only the big cities. There are other security areas of national import like the Jordan Valley where we have an obligation that Israel retain control.
It's very unlikely that any Palestinian leader would accept that Likud approach. That didn't trouble us in the past and it doesn't trouble us now. We can't let the attitudes of the Palestinian leadership dictate our policies. It's meant to be the other way around. I don't see any chance with the Likud in control of reaching a permanent accord with the Palestinians.
There are those who believe that Ariel Sharon is aiming for interim agreements - recognition of a Palestinian state within limited borders in areas where they in any case have control.
You're talking about Area A? Presumably the Palestinians wouldn't agree to that.
Look, according to the roadmap, there is a stage where they essentially do agree to a temporary Palestinian state for a year, and within a year we're supposed to have agreed to a permanent accord. Sharon has stayed out of that trap for now because there's been no implementation of the first stage which requires them to fight terrorism.
But if the terror groups are dismantled and incitement ends and violence disappears, Israel enters a framework which requires it within a year to reach a permanent accord. That's why I could never support the roadmap. Other Likud ministers feel the same. It's a very dangerous framework - if the Palestinians were smart. They haven't been smart yet, but at some stage they may recognize the tragedy that they could lead us to if they were smarter politically.
All of which takes us back to what I was saying about it being unfair to accuse Sharon of a radical departure from his worldview - certainly not the departure of the kind that Begin made at Camp David or Rabin at Oslo. Maybe it's akin to Shamir's departure of ultimately going to an international conference where he sat with members of the PLO, including from Jerusalem, something which, in the past, he was willing to sacrifice his government to avoid.
Maybe these kinds of departures explain why people are losing so much faith in their politicians.
Everybody in his life makes changes in his positions. Most of the public accepts this as a legitimate aspect of the game. Some don't.
What's your future? You're opposing the pullout but acknowledge you didn't have the right to lead a campaign against it. You mention prime ministerial candidates and don't include yourself? [This interview took place hours before Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz said he would likely indict Hanegbi for making illegal political appointments.]
I don't feel I've reached the personal position to be a prime minister. I haven't finished the training, although I'm deep into it after 17 years in the Knesset and seven years in government. I am accumulating experience...Maybe the day will come in a decade or so.
It's a nightmare job.
The problem is it's not a job. It's taking responsibility for the fate of the whole people, not just in Israel. It requires people of the stature of Ben-Gurion, Begin, Herzl - leaders of the Jewish people, not guys from the party.
You don't include Sharon in that list?
It may well be that Sharon belongs there. Fifty years in all the positions - the army, having passed the lows and highs...You defined it as a nightmare and I worked four years alongside a prime minister when I ran Shamir's office. Day-to-day there isn't a single moment of rest and peace of mind. If you haven't got a coalition crisis, you've got new fatalities or a train crash or there's a budget crisis or a bombing in Buenos Aires or Irangate or Pollard's been arrested. Non stop. Only you as prime minister are exposed to that. Only you understand its significance.
Who gets to that position? People who are convinced that only they can lead the people through these batterings. They're filled with this feeling of mission and therefore can live through the nightmare without being broken. That requires lots of experience, and extraordinary internal resources.